Voyages of self-discovery

Why do we go on pilgrimages? Paul Noble goes in search of an answer

What is a pilgrimage?

Pilgrimages are not the exclusive pastime of devout characters from a past age. They are still undertaken today by people of various religious faiths - and by many who have no religious belief. Their journeys are an external show of a parallel inner journey, for pilgrimages are always made to meet an emotional or spiritual need.

The young people who go around the world "to find themselves"; the annual visit to a family grave; the thousands of believers who go to Makkah (Mecca) or Lourdes every year; the old soldiers visiting long-remembered battlefields; the hikers following the route to Santiago de Compostela - we might call them all pilgrims.

What are we looking for?

Religion provides the motivation for many pilgrimages, and a similar inner need underlies secular pilgrimages, too. For some faiths, it is the emotional journey that is important. Sikhs, for instance, do not undertake pilgrimages as they believe that the most significant journeys are those that take place in the mind. The most common reasons for pilgrimages are:

* Religious obligation. In the Muslim religion, those who are sufficiently healthy and wealthy have a duty to make a journey to Makkah once in their lifetime. One of the five key practices of Islam, known as the Pillars of the Faith, is the hajj, a pilgrimage to the sacred mosques at Makkah (the home town of Muhammad). On the hajj, social distinctions are set aside and, to stress this equality, all pilgrims wear a plain white garment.

The Hindu religion also places of significance on the religious journey. Hindus worship hundreds of gods and goddesses, all representing different aspects of Brahman, the supreme spirit. Rama and Krishna are two of the most popular gods. They are both incarnations of the god Vishnu who appeared on earth many times, in disguise, to save it from disaster.

A pilgrimage (yatra) to one of the Hindu sacred sites, may be made for a specific reason, such as to celebrate the birth of a child or the fulfilment of a promise. Varanisi (Benares) on the river Ganges is one of the most sacred sites. Others are Ayodhya, birthplace of Rama; Vrindavan, which has connections to Krishna; and Gangotri, source of the Ganges.

* Spiritual and emotional need. It is hard to separate duty from spiritual need. For example, even Sikhs make journeys, but not as a religious obligation, particularly to significant historical sites such as the Golden Temple at Amritsar in the Punjab, the most holy of Sikh shrines. This is the site of the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the religious teacher who introduced the faith of Sikhism about 500 years ago. His message was tolerance and that everyone was equal in God's eyes.

Similarly, Catholics journey to Rome where large crowds gather to be addressed by the Pope, an occasion from which they take great satisfaction and comfort.

* Healing. Places of pilgrimage often became associated with miraculous healings. In the Middle Ages particularly, people flocked to some sites in anticipation and hope of relief from physical suffering.

* Penance and punishment. Pilgrimages have also been made as a punishment or as an act of redemption for wrong-doing. For example, after the murder of Thomas Becket, for which Henry II felt responsible, the King walked to Canterbury in remorse, kissed the spot where the Archbishop had fallen and submitted to being publicly beaten.

What people do on pilgrimages

The journey is an important act in itself, but the arrival is always marked in some special way. It may be that a simple act of reflection and remembrance takes place; sometimes there are prayers of thanksgiving; promises are made or even sacrifices. Where large numbers of pilgrims assemble, formal ceremonies are usually the focal point of the occasion.


The high period for pilgrimages in the Christian world was the Middle Ages, when there were Christian shrines in every European country. Many of these were minor sites, used by local pilgrims, but some attracted attention from further afield.

There were three major Christian sites: Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela in Spain. According to the Bible (Acts 12:2) the apostle James (St James the Greater) was the first disciple to be martyred. Some time during the 9th century, a legend emerged that his body was buried at Compostela. A cathedral was built over the grave and James was adopted as Spain's patron saint. To this day, on foot, bicycle and horse, pilgrims follow the ancient route to Santiago de Compostela (in Spanish Sant Iago means St James).


In Britain, Canterbury was a pilgrim hot spot. From the 6th century it had been a place of pilgrimage due to holy relics held there, and in the 12th century interest grew due to a particularly bloody murder.

Thomas Becket had been a close friend of the king, Henry II, but after Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury he took the line that the Church was above secular law. Henry, who was renowned for spectacular outbursts of anger, vented his spleen on the subject: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

On December 12, 1170, four knights took the King at his word and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. The murder, and Henry's dramatic public penance, ensured that the route to Canterbury would become well-trodden by pilgrims. One key route, along the North Downs in Kent, bears the name "Pilgrim's Way" and is popular with hikers.

Chaucer's tales

The 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to be buried in what is now called "Poet's Corner" in Westminster Abbey. The setting for his Tales is the pilgrim path to Canterbury, and the 30 people who set off from Southwark are used by Chaucer to depict experiences and characters with which his readers would have been familiar. The book is built on a promise that the traveller who tells the best story will be given a free dinner at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. A series of fascinating tales unfold, giving us an insight into the experiences of travellers in the 14th century. Wealthy pilgrims came on horseback from London, stopping on the way at Dartford and Rochester. One character, the Wife of Bath, is the medieval equivalent of an international jet-setter, enhancing her social standing by extensive travel and an outward show of religious dedication: Thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

She had passed many a strange strem:

At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne

In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne.

She koude muchel of wandrynge by the way.

The Pilgrim's Progress

The Pilgrim's Progress was written in the 17th century by John Bunyan, a little educated son of a tinker (one reason the book is regarded as such a unique work of genius). He wrote: "I never went to school, but was brought up at my father's house, in a very mean condition, among a company of poor countrymen."

The book traces the stages of Christian's experience of life. The allegory is full of characters with fantastic names, such as Mr Worldly Wiseman and Mrs Timorous, portrayed in a realistic and robust way. Christian travels to the Celestial City, encountering all sorts of perils and dangers on the way. The title is explained as "The Pilgrim's Progress from this world to that which is to come." Words from the book are still used in a well-known hymn:

Whoso beset him round

With dismal stories

Do but themselves confound:

His strength the more is.

No lion can him fright,

He'll with a giant fight;

But he will have a right

To be a pilgrim.


Today, many Christians go to Lourdes in southern France to seek a cure or blessing for the sick and suffering, sometimes on behalf of somebody else, sometimes for themselves.

Lourdes became a place of pilgrimage in recent times. In 1858 Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant girl, had visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto. A spring appeared at the place of her vision and soon there were reports of miraculous healings having taken place there.

Consequently, this became a place of pilgrimage and, in 1958, a vast underground church was opened together with a medical centre to investigate the nature of the cures.

"Our Lady of Lourdes" has her own feast day, February 11, and the pilgrimages continue unabated, millions of people making the journey every year in the hope of a cure for their ills.

Secular pilgrims

Each year, diminishing numbers of veterans make a pilgrimage to honour fallen comrades in both world wars of the 20th century. Particularly on Remembrance Day, November 11, people visit battlefields, war memorials and graves to commemorate the sacrifices made.

Hero worship also generates pilgrims. Since Elvis Presley's death in 1977, Gracelands, his home in Memphis, Tennessee, has attracted millions each year. His hits included Hound Dog and Love me Tender.

After the shocking terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001, many relatives of people murdered on that day have made a pilgrimage to the place where their loved ones died. They have left symbols of grief and love, and taken away tokens of remembrance.


* Good re-tellings of classic stories specially written for children are worth using. See re-tellings by Geraldine McCaughrean (winner of the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award) of John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress (Hodder Children's Books), and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Puffin Classics).

* For picture resources on world religions, try PCET, 27 Kirchen Road, London W13 0UD, and Philip Green Educational, 112a Alcester Road, Studley, Warwickshire, BV80 7NR.

* Searching the internet for material on world religions can be time-consuming but very rewarding. Here are some good sites to start with.

Teaching Ideas

* Pupils can use maps to trace routes followed by pilgrims. OS maps show the Pilgrim's Way over the North Downs in Kent. Ask pupils to find the main medieval places of pilgrimage on a map.

* Where is Makkah? Get children to estimate and measure the distances travelled.

* Ask pupils to investigate the route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

* Get the class to devise their own Canterbury Tales.

* Examine more closely the practices of a major faith, especially in relation to pilgrimages.

* Try to get someone who has been on a pilgrimage to talk to the class.

* Enact parts of The Pilgrim's Progress for a school assembly.

* Trawl through travel advertisements to find details of a pilgrimage. Use the information to make plans for a trip to Makkah or Lourdes (or other sites). How much will it cost?

* Design an appropriate monument to be erected on the site of the World Trade Centre, and write a suitable prayer or inscription.

* Devise appropriate souvenirs for medieval pilgrims visiting Canterbury.

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